At a Glance
- Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca recently launched an investigation to the ISS National Lab seeking to advance a nanoparticle drug delivery system for therapeutic cancer vaccines.
- In such systems, nanoparticles act as carries for a drug, providing targeted controlled-release that helps to increase efficacy and reduce side effects.
- By studying nanoparticle formation in microgravity, AstraZeneca hopes to identify ways to optimize the nanoparticle manufacturing process, which could lead to improved nanoparticle formulations for therapeutic cancer vaccines at a reduced cost.
- This investigation is the first of multiple investigations from AstraZeneca to leverage the ISS National Lab for research aimed at improving drug delivery and development.
Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca is going to space to try to address one of the biggest health challenges on Earth: Cancer.
The health and economic burden from cancer is staggering and is increasing each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1.6 million new cases of cancer were reported in the U.S. in 2015, and almost 600,000 people died from the disease. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality estimates that in 2015, the total health care costs for cancer in the U.S. reached $80.2 billion.
In an investigation that launched on SpaceX’s 17th commercial resupply services mission, AstraZeneca is leveraging the microgravity environment of the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory to advance a nanoparticle drug delivery system for therapeutic cancer vaccines with improved drug formulations that work with greater efficacy and fewer side effects. The experiment returned to the ground earlier this week onboard SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft and will be returned to AstraZeneca for analysis.
Using Nanoparticles as Targeted Drug Carriers
Therapeutic cancer vaccines are a type of immunotherapy that help treat cancer by strengthening the body’s immune response against cancer cells. Cancer immunotherapy has shown great promise, but several challenges remain. For example, it has been difficult to produce vaccines that provoke a strong enough immune response against cancer cells, and side effects from immunotherapy drugs have also posed challenges by promoting immune responses against non-cancer cells.
Nanoparticle drug delivery systems—in which solid particles or liquid droplets containing a therapeutic drug are encapsulated in a shell—could help address these challenges. Such nanoparticles deliver the desired concentration of the drug directly to the tumor site in a sustained controlled-release manner, which provides many advantages over traditional therapies that require multiple doses. Nanoparticle drug delivery systems can help strengthen immune activation, enhance efficacy, and reduce side effects of therapeutic cancer vaccines.
AstraZeneca aims to study nanoparticle formation in microgravity to better understand properties such as particle size and distribution, which are key factors in developing effective nanoparticle drug delivery systems. By evaluating nanoparticle formation on the ISS National Lab, the company hopes to identify opportunities to optimize the nanoparticle manufacturing process to develop improved nanoparticle formulations.
Such improvements could result in therapeutic cancer vaccines with higher efficacy and fewer side effects, providing significant benefits for patients in terms of survival and quality of life. Optimization of the fabrication process may also lead to reduced manufacturing costs, which could help expand patient access to therapeutic cancer vaccines through reduced costs to both the health care system and to patients. This investigation is the first of multiple research projects AstraZeneca is planning to conduct on the ISS National Lab. A second investigation from AstraZeneca planned for launch later this year aims to study the effect of microgravity on the production of monoclonal antibodies, another type of therapeutic drug used to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases.